For centuries, humanity has dreamed of life beyond Earth. The idea that we’re not alone in the universe is tantalizing – the stuff of countless science fiction stories. But according to a new study, the existence of life on other planets may not be in the realm of fantasy. A team of scientists now claim, in fact, that a set of photos taken by NASA are actually proof that there’s something out there.
Humans have long pondered the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” And the concept of cosmic pluralism – the idea that other worlds may host alien life – can actually be traced as far back as the 6th century B.C. At that time, though, it was predominantly a philosophical school of thought.
Nevertheless, the concept of cosmic pluralism persisted through to medieval times, when several Muslim scholars backed it. Around the 7th century, for example, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir noted, “Maybe you see that God created only this single world and that God did not create humans besides you. Well, I swear by God that God created thousands and thousands of worlds and thousands and thousands of humankind.”
And yet the theory of cosmic pluralism never really took hold in the scientific community – not until 1609, when Galileo constructed his telescope, that is. So, as scientists were then armed with the knowledge that the universe is much larger than ever previously imagined, they began to take seriously the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
And in the centuries since, much of the scientific community’s focus has been on the planet Mars. In 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli pointed his telescope at the Red Planet and mapped out its “seas” and “continents” along with a series of linear channels on the surface. The term that he used for these channels was mistakenly translated into English as “canals,” however, leading to a curious response from the British public.
Because canals are man-made structures, the thought of them existing on Mars gripped the nation’s collective imagination. But the confusion over Schiaparelli’s terminology was cleared up in the 20th century, with the “canals” ultimately proving to be an optical illusion. The idea of life on the Red Planet was firmly established in the public’s consciousness, however, with science fiction playing a big part.
Indeed, there are countless examples of what life on Mars might look like filling the annals of pop culture. H. G. Wells first popularized the term “Martian” in his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, paving the way for Looney Tunes’ Marvin the Martian in 1948. And more recently, Tim Burton’s 1998 movie Mars Attacks! depicted Martians as bug-eyed aliens.
It’s little wonder, then, that attention turned to Mars after humans successfully landed on the Moon in 1969. The Soviets had attempted to send a probe to the Red Planet even before the Moon landings, it transpires. And although that 1960 mission ultimately failed, it didn’t stop the USSR from continuing its Mars program during the space race.
But the Soviets didn’t enjoy marked success early on. The USSR’s Mars 2 lander, for instance, crashed into the surface of the Red Planet. And it wasn’t until 1971 that the mangled spacecraft’s twin – named Mars 3 – successfully completed a soft-landing on Mars. A monumental achievement, then – even if the probe did fail after a mere 14 seconds. Yet the mission’s orbiter completed its run in outer space successfully, returning with crucial information about the curious planet’s atmosphere.
Later that decade, no doubt buoyed by the Soviets’ success, NASA sent two spacecraft to Mars as part of its Viking program. The first, Viking 1, became the first soft-lander to successfully complete its mission. The spacecraft remained on the planet’s surface for over six years, in fact – a record that took nearly 30 years to be broken. And during that time, Viking 1 gathered all sorts of useful data for NASA’s scientists.
In July 1976, for instance, Viking 1 transmitted the first clear images of Mars’ surface. The probe had taken the shots, it seemed, during its descent through the atmosphere. And the following day, Viking 1 made history once more: this time, it captured and sent back the first ever photo taken of the planet’s surface in glorious technicolor. The spacecraft had also carried out experiments intended to find evidence of otherworldly beings – but the results ultimately proved inconclusive.
It took NASA another decade to send a spacecraft to Mars following the end of the Viking program – but sadly it was a failure. In September 1992 the Mars Observer set off for the heavens, but it was lost in space by the following August. NASA subsequently began its Mars Exploration Program, and the organization is still running it today.
Over the past two and a half decades, the program has employed a variety of spacecraft, rovers and landers to map Mars’ surface. And this vast array of expensive scientific equipment hasn’t been sent into space for nothing: the Mars Exploration Program has four specific goals that it’s keen to achieve. Principally, the program seeks to determine whether or not there has ever been life on Mars, regardless of its presence now. Another of the program’s stated aims is to learn about the Red Planet’s climate, past and present.
Understanding Mars’ geology is the third goal on the list. Mapping out the planet’s rocky history could indicate the one-time presence of water, for instance, or even a magnetic field. This in itself would suggest that Mars was once actually rather like Earth. And the program lastly intends to thoroughly prepare for a manned mission to the Red Planet by collecting invaluable data on the planet’s dynamics.
Successfully transporting an unmanned machine to the Red Planet’s surface has proven to be a real challenge, though. Mars’ uneven surface and atmosphere present enormous engineering difficulties, for one. Plus, attempting to imitate the planet’s environment for testing is hugely expensive. It’s little wonder then that around two-thirds of spacecraft launched towards Mars have failed before beginning their mission.
Nevertheless, certain missions under the Mars Exploration Program have been successful. In 2004, for example, the twin rovers of Opportunity and Spirit landed on the planet’s surface. And while the latter failed in 2010, the former stayed operational for a whopping 14 years. The Curiosity rover, meanwhile, launched as part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission in 2012 and is still functional today.
In line with the aims of the overall Mars Exploration Program, Curiosity investigates Mars’ geology and climate as well as its potential for habitability. And although the spacecraft was originally intended to be deployed on a two-year mission, in December 2012 NASA stretched out the rover’s journey indefinitely. It’s been running ever since, too, sending back vital information.
And by studying the planet’s geology, Curiosity has uncovered evidence of a multitude of elements that we find on Earth, including oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, sulfur and phosphorous. These are crucial ingredients for sustaining life, and together they suggest that Mars might once have been home to microbial life. The lack of salt in Mars’ rocks, meanwhile, suggests that fresh water may once have been present on the planet.
Not all of Curiosity’s findings have been positive, however. Indeed some have been warnings, such as the sheer amount of radiation that the rover has encountered. The levels present on the Red Planet blow well past NASA’s limits for its astronauts. And unsurprisingly, this presents new challenges for engineers who are planning manned missions.
As well as sending scientific data, Curiosity has transmitted plenty of photos of the surface of Mars back to Earth. And it’s in some of these photographs that a team of scientists reckon they might have spotted something significant. Indeed, it’s something that could potentially represent evidence of life on the Red Planet at long last.
In 2019 a team of international scientists published their findings in the Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science. And their paper – entitled “Evidence of Life on Mars?” – presented some pretty stellar proposals. The team suggested, you see, that the images taken by NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers actually show mushroom-like objects growing on Mars’ surface.
Specifically, the paper points to “fungi and lichens on the Martian surface.” It also mentions “15 specimens resembling and identified as ‘puffballs.’” And the team’s reported findings grow even more fantastical: they claim that NASA’s photographs show these strange objects growing out of the Martian soil over the course of three days.
Speaking to The Sun in March 2019, the study’s co-author Dr. Regina Dass elaborated on the paper’s claims. She said, “There are no geological or other abiogenic forces on Earth which can produce sedimentary structures by the hundreds, [or] which have mushroom shapes, stems, stalks and shed what [look] like spores on the surrounding surface.”
The report also discusses past studies that indicate that organisms can survive in a Mars-like environment. Among these are fungi, algae, lichens and bacteria. Indeed, the report states, “A statistically significant majority of 70 experts – after examining Martian specimens photographed by NASA – identified and agreed fungi, basidiomycota (puffballs) and lichens may have colonized Mars.”
Dr. Vincenzo Rizzo, a National Research Council biogeologist, told The Sun that Martian methane’s seasonal fluctuations point to biological activity on the planet’s surface. “90 percent of terrestrial methane is biological in origin,” he stated. “Seasonal fluctuations in atmospheric methane are directly correlated with plant growth and death cycles.”
Unsurprisingly, the team’s study has proven hugely controversial, particularly within the scientific community. The editorial board that published the report knew, though, that it was likely to provoke debate upon its release. So prior to publication, the board subjected the paper to a rigorous peer review from a number of senior editors and independent scientists.
Of this number, three rebuffed it completely – but the remaining 11 reviewers gave the report the green light. According to Science Alert, one editor felt so strongly about the paper that he still wanted to remove it despite majority approval. Ultimately, though, the editorial board behind the Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science published the report.
NASA itself has actually already studied the supposed “mushrooms.” You see, back in 2004 the Opportunity rover discovered millions of them littering Mars’ surface. Instead of referring to them as “mushrooms,” though, NASA instead calls them “blueberries.” And the agency doesn’t consider them to be a sign of life on the Red Planet.
In fact, NASA’s analysis of the strange objects – which measure up at around 1.2 inches – found that they’re actually composed of an iron oxide called hematite. According to NASA’s own report, the small spheres are embedded in the surface like “blueberries in a muffin.” And they’ve been gradually revealed through the process of erosion.
While the authors of the report accept that NASA has come to this conclusion, they say it doesn’t mean their findings are false. “We are not disagreeing with NASA. NASA has some of the greatest scientists and engineers in the world,” Rizzo told The Sun. “However, hematite is also a product of biological activity.”
That doesn’t mean that the paper is totally watertight, however. Indeed, the scientists themselves admit in the report that “similarities in morphology are not proof [of life].” The academics have even conceded that their evidence is “circumstantial and unverified.” And the report’s conclusion is, in fact, in line with these admissions.
The study acknowledges that organisms can survive in simulated Mars-like environments. But that’s not the same as actually surviving on the Red Planet itself. In the end, then, the provocative study concludes, “Although, collectively, the evidence, in total, weighs in favor of biology, we can only conclude that the question of life on Mars remains unanswered.”
Dass admitted that the paper’s authors “don’t have a smoking gun – no photos of cells or cellular structure.” Moreover, as she told Science Alert, “There is no definitive proof, only a lot of evidence which shouts ‘biology.’” With such a hesitant conclusion, then, it’s quite understandable that so many people have disagreed with the study.
“The journal and article are both garbage,” wrote one Reddit user. “There’s a community of self-proclaimed astrobiologists who use the same crackpot tricks (mostly misrepresenting mundane photos of basic geological features as hard evidence of life) and have been for decades. They’ve been pounding that drum since at least the mid-1990s.”
And furthermore, another user agreed with NASA’s original findings and claims. “It’s probably hematite,” this person commented on a Reddit thread related to the subject. “Stuff erodes differently on Mars. There’s less gravity and less air density and no flowing water to erode rocks like there is on the Earth.”
This isn’t the first time, either, that people thought they’d spotted something strange in pictures transmitted back from Mars. The phenomenon of pareidolia has extended to surface images from the Red Planet, you see. And in case you’re not familiar with pareidolia, it’s the strange process whereby the mind sees something that isn’t really present. An example would be seeing a face in an inanimate object.
And you may be surprised to learn that the history of Martian pareidolia actually extends back decades. In 1976 NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft captured a black and white image of the planet’s surface, featuring a rock that supposedly resembles a human face – at least to some. Others have claimed, meanwhile, that certain rocks greatly resemble lizard or rodent-like creatures.
Even if those pictures really are just of rocks, though, that doesn’t mean Mars is a lost cause altogether. In March 2019, for instance, scientists found what could be an ancient system of waterways beneath the planet’s surface. Using data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission, Francesco Salese – a geologist at Utrecht University – discovered very old and barren underground rivers.
Salese believes, you see, that Mars may have once had a groundwater reservoir that spanned the entire planet. And while this discovery could point to the one-time existence of life on the Red Planet, it’s apparently more interesting to scientists because of what it could mean for Earth. If water can virtually vanish from Mars, could the same one day happen to our own planet?
Whatever the truth, the exploration of Mars is set to continue in the near future. Russian space agency Roscosmos is teaming up with the European Space Agency to hopefully launch a new rover in 2020. And with many experts at such odds with the paper in the Journal of Astrobiology, it’s no wonder that the search for life on the Red Planet must go on – regardless of what the mushroom-like objects in Curiosity and Opportunity’s photos actually are.